The flat salary cap is going to make it a struggle for lots of teams to be active and make necessary changes over the next three years, and the Washington Capitals are no different. They enter the offseason with $10,394,872 remaining in cap space and 16 players under contract. Change is clearly needed after a second straight first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it is going to be tough to make it happen with such limited cap space.
At the start of last season, the Capitals waived goaltender Pheonix Copley after Ilya Samsonov won out the No. 2 goalie job in training camp. Copley signed a three-year contract extension that has a $1.1 million cap hit near the end of the 2018-19 season. Even though he is with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, he still accounts for $25,000 against the Capitals’ salary cap according to CapFriendly.
While $25,000 is not a pain in the neck to deal with for the Capitals, a team that has to make adjustments and some major contract decisions coming up needs every penny it could muster.
Obviously, if Copley was projected as their No. 2 for the 2020-21 season, there would be no reason to trade him. But when Samsonov tweaked his nerve during the NHL pause and missed the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals played Vitek Vanecek as their back-up behind Braden Holtby, indicating that they put Vanecek ahead of Copley on the goaltending depth chart.
While Copley went 17-8-6 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.47 goals-against average, and two shutouts with the Bears this season, Vanecek was even better, going 19-10-1 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.26 goals-against average, and two shutouts.
Copley is also four years older than Vanecek and he will turn 29 at the presumable start of next season.
It has been speculated that the Capitals will look for a reliable and experienced No. 2 or 1B goaltender to play with and help guide Samsonov in free agency. The 23-year-old will enter his first season as an NHL starter and the Capitals will need to give him some insurance after he was injured in an ATV accident this past summer. Especially with a condensed schedule for the 2020-21 season, a solid No. 2 will be pivotal for the Capitals. That indicates that Copley could enter next season as low as fourth on the goaltender depth chart, something that is not ideal when he counts against the NHL budget.
While trading Copley will not make much of a difference in terms of clearing cap space or net much value in return, it is better than having a player on your salary cap when he is not even on the roster. At best, the Capitals will be able to get a sixth or even low fifth-round pick in return. However, it will be worth dealing Copley if such a trade would give them some more breathing room under the NHL salary cap.
With a condensed schedule, there will be no shortage of teams that will be looking to aid their goaltending depth. Some teams that could be interested in Copley include the Chicago Blackhawks (for depth) as Corey Crawford is set to hit unrestricted free agency in a couple of weeks, Tampa Bay Lightning as backup Curtis McElhinney is set to hit the unrestricted free-agent market (though it would be understandable if the Capitals did not want to help them as the two have been among the Eastern Conference’s best for the last six seasons), and the Winnipeg Jets as backup Laurent Brossoit is set to become an unrestricted free agent on October 9.
Another reason why dealing Copley may be of interest to the Capitals is that they have only five picks in what is supposed to be one of the deepest drafts in years. While they certainly will not be able to get a high one by trading just Copley alone, it certainly would not hurt to get another pick by trading their projected No. 4 goaltender next season even if it is low.
With the Capitals in need of every penny they can get ahead of free agency and having some big names up for contract extensions in the next year, perhaps moving Copley to shed some salary would help especially if the team does not have big plans for him in the future. While part of the reason they signed Copley was to have a goalie to expose to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, the goalie that they will sign in free agency will give them one. Of course, moving Copley may give them only a little more cap flexibility to satisfy their needs and they will have to make more moves too but the more, the better.
By Harrison Brown